City View: The Alexander Garden
After agreeing to place statues in the garden, the City Duma then had to determine who deserved one.
Published: September 3, 2014 (Issue # 1827)
A defining feature of St. Petersburg is the various parks and gardens that dot the map from north to south and east to west, providing places of tranquility and quiet in the urban sprawl of Russia’s second-largest city.
There’s Park Pobedy in the south, which was once home to a brick factory and, more morbidly, a crematorium for the dead during the Leningrad blockade. There’s the Summer Garden along the banks of the Neva, whose fence is so beautiful that, legend has it, a man who sailed all the way from Britain to see the city turned back at the sight of it, as he believed nothing else could match its beauty. North of the center are Krestovsky and Yelagin islands, providing local families an ideal spot to picnic.
One urban oasis that stands out is the Alexander Garden, which abuts the Admiralty building and stretches from Palace Square to Senate Square. Before its reincarnation as one of the city’s most popular parks, the area was covered by the fortifications of the Admiralty. A wide avenue was built in front of the building and it became a popular place for the city’s aristocracy and nobility to meet and be seen, its fame immortalized in verse in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin.” It wasn’t until 1872 that a decision was made to transform the layout from a pedestrian thoroughfare to a more scenic, natural setting.
Responsibility for the garden fell upon the shoulders of Eduard Regel, a German horticulturalist and botanist who had been in charge of St. Petersburg’s botanical garden since 1855. Born in 1812, he graduated from the University of Bonn and was the head of Zurich’s botanical garden after completing his studies in Gottingen, Germany. It was thanks to his efforts that St. Petersburg’s botanical garden became one of Europe’s most beautiful.
The Alexander Garden first opened in 1874, named after the then emperor Alexander II, and the park was an immediate hit with locals. In 1880, the St. Petersburg City Duma decided to commemorate the country’s greatest cultural figures with statues of them placed throughout the garden.
While the city government was well in favor of the proposal, deciding who was important enough to earn a statue in the Alexander Garden was another story. Rejected candidates included Saints Cyril and Methodius, who created the Cyrillic alphabet, the poets Gavrila Derzhavin and Nikolai Karamzin, and famed scholar Mikhail Lomonosov.
Of those deemed worthy of being represented in the Alexander Garden was Nikolai Przhevalsky, a naturalist and explorer who traveled through the vast steppes of Central and East Asia cataloguing plants and animals. Unfortunately, his statue is best known today in the park not only because of the stone camel resting at its base but because of Przhevalsky’s startling resemblance to Iosef Stalin.
The honored (and less Stalin-resembling) artists whose statues can still be seen to this day include Nikolay Gogol, the composer Mikhail Glinka and the poets Mikhail Lermontov and Vasily Zhukovsky.
After the Bolsheviks seized power, the garden was renamed to the Maxim Gorky Workers’ Garden, a name it would keep until 1989.
During World War II, as the city savagely struggled for survival, none of the trees in the garden were cut down despite the terrible need for firewood in a city dying from cold, hunger and disease by the thousands. However, German shelling and air raids heavily damaged the park, and when the siege was finally lifted at the beginning of 1944, the garden was restored to its former glory.